Re: Man vs. God

Man vs. God

http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970203440104574405030643556324.html#articleTabs=article

I’m not sure exactly what use there is in placing these two authors together.  They’re mostly focusing on separate issues.  I suppose it’s helpful just to demonstrate the distance between two views.  Both Karen Armstrong and Richard Dawkins are criticizing literalist religion.  The difference is that Dawkins also dismisses non-literalist religion.

I’m in favor of Karen Armstrong’s position as she has a better grasp of history and societal development.  She seems to comprehend what the real issue is.  However, Richard Dawkins does have a point.  Literalism is still a popular view, but the even more fundamental point is that it’s ever becoming less popular.  Polls show that traditional religion is waning and alternative interpretations of spirituality are increasing.

It’s true that it might take a while for literalism to become a minority position especially in the US.  Even so, Karen Armstrong has written about how fundamentalism is a reaction to modernity.  Both scientific materialism and fundamentalism both tend towards literalism, seeing all of the world through one lense.  Armstrong is suggesting that multiple perspectives will give more understanding.

She points out how the symbolic view of the divine is very old, older than Christianity.  Many of the earliest Christians were influenced by the allegorical interpretations of the Greeks and the Alexandrian Jews, and these early Christians often discounted literalist interpretations of the Old Testament.  It’s only in recent centuries that biblical literalism took its cue from science and became widely popular.  The debate about the historical nature of Jesus is more of an issue today than it ever was at the earliest decades of Christianity.

Dawkins bring up a very important point in his last paragraph, but he betrays a lack of comprehension of the subject.  It seems to me that Armstrong’s view simply goes over his head.  Yes, literalism is popular.  So?  Why does he want to make all people open to religion and spirituality the enemy of his ideological vision of scientific humanism?  His view even seems to discount the value of openminded agnosticism.  You’re either with him or you’re against him… pick a side or else become irrelevant (and lonely).  He is correct that many people don’t understand the views of sophisticated theologians such as Armstrong (himself included), but that doesn’t make such views any less important.  It’s lonely to speak against popular opinion.  However, that was just as much true for atheistic scientists in centuries past.  Popular opinion is always changing.

The problem with trying to compare these two authors is that you need a larger context to judge by.  There are two many issues and too much background info that need to be understood in detail: Axial Age religions, Hellenistic influences on Judeo-Christianity, logos and mythos, literalism and allegory, modernism and postmodernism, etc.  There are these large trends of history that we’re all caught in and it’s hard to see outside of our situation.  This is a very old discussion.  The debate between literalism and allegory, for example, has come up again and again throughout history.  There was a major debate about it in the 19th century, but then was almost entirely forgotten about again in the twentieth century.  This debate has been become active again, but the situation is different.  The literalism of both scientists and fundamentalists is a viewpoint of modernism.  Despite the influence modernist thought has on the world, we are slowly developing towards a new paradigm of understanding.

To understand what is emerging from this cultural conflict, I’d suggest turning to some other ideas.  Personally, I find Ken Wilber’s integral theory helpful and also Beck and Cowan’s Spiral Dynamics.  But there are many models that are helpful.  What Dawkins misses is the human element.  He is idealizing objectivity, but humans are inevitably mired in subjectivity.  If you want to understand why humans believe what they do, you need to understand human nature.  Studying psychology always adds some insight.  To specifically understand the shift society is dealing with at the moment, I think the study of generations is even more important.  Polls show that they younger generations have a very different view of religon.  It’s obvious that we should look to the opinions and attitudes of the young if we want to see where the world is heading.  The youth are less traditionally religious, but interestingly this doesn’t equate to them being non-spiritual.  So, it would seem that the youth are leaning more towards Armstrong’s view.  But time will tell.

Love of Stories: Modernism and Education

 
PLOTJon Krause
A good story is a dirty secret that we all share. It’s what makes guilty pleasures so pleasurable, but it’s also what makes them so guilty. A juicy tale reeks of crass commercialism and cheap thrills. We crave such entertainments, but we despise them. Plot makes perverts of us all.

Well, that is a bit melodramatic.  Good storytelling is far from being limited to “crass commercialism and cheap thrills”.  People simply enjoy good storytelling whether or not it’s considered high art by academics.  But it’s no secret, dirty or otherwise.  I do understand the point he is making.  For any ‘intellectually respectable’ person, maybe good storytelling has been somewhat of a dirty secret… but I’ve never considered intellectuals who can’t think for themselves as ‘respectable’.

It’s not easy to put your finger on what exactly is so disgraceful about our attachment to storyline. Sure, it’s something to do with high and low and genres and the canon and such. But what exactly?

Unfortunately, Mr. Grossman only manages a partial answer.  There are some truly great analyes about the relationship between high and low genres, but you’ll have to look elsewhere.  That said, I did appreciate this article.  His pointing out the enjoyment of plot does touch upon something quite significant.  And I agree Modernism represented a pivotal era.  Writers, especially in America, were seeking a distinctive voice.  They didn’t just want to write entertainments but to offer some semblance of reality.   However, what the modernists didn’t realize is that ‘realism’ is just another genre with rules.

I think that not only some of the most popular but some of the best fiction of the last 50 yrs has come out of the genres. Mr. Grossman is correct that many people turn to fiction written for the young (which often equates to genres) for the simple reason that genre writers know how to tell a good story.  At the same time, the most innovative writing has come from genre writers and mainstream writers experimenting with genre.

If you look at recent genre writing, it’s as much about breaking rules as following them. Genre writers are less confined than mainstream realism writers in both what they can write about and how they can write about it. Mr. Grossman points out that modernist writers invoked realism as their ideal, but what they forgot is that imagination is a part of human reality… or, to put it another way, subjectivity isn’t a mere extension of objectivity. Genre writers are more open to the mixing of realism and imagination which is why genre writers often come closer to the reality of genuine human experience.

I’ve found the fantasy genre inspires many authors with a basic love of storytelling.  Fantasy is rooted in the first stories we heard as children.  We read in order to have someone help us imagine something different than our normal experience.  Even so-called realistic fiction portrays people and event outside of our normal experience and helps us understand them.  There is no such thing as purely realstic fiction because imaginaton is always invoked when a story is told.

I think that the freedom allowed by genre fiction gives authors the opportunity to think outside of the box.  When not constrained by the rules of realism, authors can more easily capture the subtle and complex aspects of reality.

 – – –

David Walter Banks for The New York Times

Lorrie McNeill gives her middle school students a wide choice of reading in Jonesboro, Ga. More Photos >

But fans of the reading workshop say that assigning books leaves many children bored or unable to understand the texts. Letting students choose their own books, they say, can help to build a lifelong love of reading.

If a kid learns to hate reading, then trying to teach them difficult texts is rather pointless.

Critics of the approach say that reading as a group generally leads to more meaningful insights, and they question whether teachers can really keep up with a roomful of children reading different books. Even more important, they say, is the loss of a common body of knowledge based on the literary classics — often difficult books that children are unlikely to choose for themselves.

Many kids simply won’t read a book or will just read the cliff notes.  You have to first to encourage them to want to read because you can’t force anyone to anything.  I remember as a kid writing a book report about a book I never read and the teacher even gave me a good grade for it.  I did have some decent English teachers, but I must admit that I had to learn my love of reading on my own.  I’m just glad that no teacher taught me to hate reading. 

Ms. McNeill, an amateur poet whose favorite authors include Barbara Kingsolver and Nick Hornby, wondered if forcing some students through a book had dampened their interest in reading altogether.

Every child (and adult) natualy loves stories.  It takes great effort to destroy that love.  Many adults learned to not enjoy reading fiction and have only regained their enjoyment of reading through books such as the Harry Potter series.

Though research on the academic effects of choice has been limited, some studies have shown that giving students modest options can enhance educational results. In 11 studies conducted with third, fourth and fifth graders over the past 10 years, John T. Guthrie, now a retired professor of literacy at the University of Maryland, found that giving children limited choices from a classroom collection of books on a topic helped improve performance on standardized reading comprehension tests.

This is so obviously true.  Even without the research, it just commonsense that giving kids some choice engages them in the learning process.  Once the kids are engaged, the teacher can then guide that learning process.

Most experts say that teachers do not have to choose between one approach or the other and that they can incorporate the best of both methods: reading some novels as a group while also giving students opportunities to select their own books.

Duh!  This isn’t a new concept.  You have to meet kids where they’re at and go from there.  Also, kids are different… have different past education, have different levels of reading comprehension, have different learning styles.  The goal is to get kids to learn and a teacher should do whatever is necessary to achieve that goal.  Some kids learn best when given more freedom to explore for themselves and some kids learn best when told what to do.  Some kids only need the merest enocouargement and some kids need direct guidance.  Whatever method is necessary, the primary goal is to teach a love of learning and kids are born with a desire to learn.  If a teacher can establish a love of learning (i.e., not destroy the child’s natural curiosity), a kid will carry that with them for the rest of their life.